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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Keeping Score

What Driftglass said. Only the political punditocracy has such non-existent accountability measures. The blogosphere is infinitely more self-regulating; chumps like Bobo Brooks and Billy Kristol would be run out of town on a virtual hot rail for their infuriating consistency at being wrong. But there they are, everywhere you turn, cluttering up various media portals, in print or in person.

It's bad enough that such people continue to cash fat checks in spite of their reliable wrongness. More pernicious is how it leads to institutional forgetfulness, the slate wiped clean with each appearance, so long as no one says anything politically incorrect.

Which, as it turns out, is entirely the point and purpose of that industry -- to legitimize what is profoundly illegitimate, to lend unearned credence and gravitas to analysis and opinions that, if they didn't affect so many lives in so many deep and painful ways, would be comical in their level of error and shoddy craftsmanship. They want to take your money and freedom, sure, but they need for you to grant them your permission, to thank them for it afterward.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Arrested Development

Definitely enjoyed deBoer's review of A.O. Scott's cultural critique, but I feel the urge to add another layer of meta to the proceedings. Scott's assessment of changing male TV and movie archetypes ring true enough, but his observations on music are maybe thinner than one would like:
And while Queen Bey may be the biggest, most self-contradicting, most multitude-containing force in popular music at the moment, she is hardly alone. Taylor Swift recently described how, under the influence of her friend Lena Dunham, she realized that “I’ve been taking a feminist stance without saying so,” which only confirmed what anyone who had been listening to her smart-girl power ballads already knew. And while there will continue to be hand-wringing about the ways female singers are sexualized — cue the pro and con think pieces about Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, Lady Gaga, Kesha and, of course, Madonna, the mother of them all — it is hard to argue with their assertions of power and independence. Take note of the extent and diversity of that list and feel free to add names to it. The dominant voices in pop music now, with the possible exception of rock, which is dad music anyway, belong to women. The conversations rippling under the surfaces of their songs are as often as not with other women — friends, fans, rivals and influences.
[emphasis mine]

Couple things here. First is the "rock....is dad music anyway" dismissal. In some ways it is, sure; the traditional triumvirate of vocals-drums-guitars that tethered rock music for a half-century now are, in its various incarnations intact, even static in its hipster retro iterations. But there are plenty of newer and younger fans for that kind of music. The dichotomy of rock and metal fandom, versus the AutoTuned, over-processed pap that passes for pop these days, is less age-based and more gender-based.

Just a few days ago, I chastised at great length the emptiness of Gene Simmons' contention that rock is dead, and elaborated on what a piss-poor idea it is to go into "music" as some sort of lucrative career option, like being a lawyer or plumber or criminal financier. But the flipside of that question deserves to be asked as well -- is there a way one can increase their chances of being a successful musical entrepreneur?

Reader, there is, I assure you. The best and most efficient path to huge mega-music-mogul-successmanship is simply to go down to the mall, find the Hot Topic store or the food court or anywhere 15-year-old girls are congregating, and listen to what they're listening to. Try to get about 4-6 weeks ahead of that sound if you can. Get the hang of Pro Tools, AutoTune, drum machines, beat programmers, and any other tools that the hep cats are using to make their crunk swang, yo.

And not to be sexist, I swear, but Scott's entire list of empowered pop chicks falls well into that rough categorization. It is useful to critique the products of these ladies on Scott's own terms -- both as "music," however subjectively you want to define that, and as evidentiary exhibits of cultural sea change, and then decide whether either of those things qualify as a step forward. The fact of the matter is that most of Scott's list is mallrat music.

And that's the second thing -- especially when we're younger and our musical consumption ritual is more communal, less personal, guys are more likely to throw on whatever they think the nearest nubile young women will want to hear. What we listen to at a party is obviously much different than what we'll listen to at home alone, with the headphones on. The personal versus communal experiences define how each of us, male or female, old or young, interact with our various media artifacts. Because of the brevity of the typical song, nowhere is this more true than with music.

I submit that a grown woman listening to Nicki Minaj or Iggy Azalea is precisely the same thing that Scott decries when he sees a 35-year-old woman reading a Hunger Games book. All that means is that, contra Scott's assumptions re Sandler and Apatow, both genders can be culturally infantilized with relative ease.

But what I really want to get into is deBoer's theme of cultural stultification as a barometer of demographic lassitude. That pop culture pieces become routinely more infantilized is simply a reflection of the society itself, which is as it should be.

It makes sense that comic-book franchises dominate the big screen in a society where people will sit and watch literally just about anything; where conventions of plot and narrative become less and less necessary; where people will convey idiotic opinions to random strangers about events that have zero effect on their lives, but can't be bothered to vote; where gun fetishists treat their totems both as toys and as bulwarks of self-defense against rampant crime and the jackbooted state, even though the violent crime rate continues to decline, and these are the selfsame people who, when a cop shoots an unarmed minority or kid, will reflexively jump to the defense of that same jackboot they profess to defend themselves from.

In a nation of 320 million inhabitants, one expects various niches of culture, politics, taste, etc. But these episodes of cognitive dissonance frequently come from the same niches. DeBoer's plaint about the self-appointed pop-culture aesthetes, "the aggressive nerds who police our artistic discourse like prison camp screws" (wonderful turn of phrase, that), rings true, as so much pop criticism comes pre-soaked in post-ironic "we know it's bad but it's so bad it's good" meta-commentary.

So you have a pop-culture mega-industry that produces trilogies of overlong movies based on comic-book franchises, and then remakes all three movies within a decade, a clear signal that technological advances, rather than peripheral elements such as acting and writing and such like, drive the bus. You have an industry that, so far, has made four movies totaling some eight or ten hours or so about sentient robots that turn back-and-forth into cars, planes, kitchen appliances perhaps.

I could be a smug, pretentious asshole and declaim this sort of thing as mere childishness, but the Transformers did not make sense to me when I was a child. I can't believe that that's because I had no imagination or whimsy as a child; I was steeped in sci-fi and fantasy books, and watched just about every '70s cartoon imaginable. But when people become steeped in this hacky, dopey stuff, they get used to it -- and when that's the majority of what's offered anymore, there is no longer any objective context, nothing to compare it to as a reference point. All you can do with the rebooted Spider-Man [rolls eyes] movie is compare it to its earlier rendition from a few years ago.

One of deBoer's commenters asserts glibly that "[w]e ought to be suspicious when you say you like foie gras but you are bored by birthday cake," which sounds true enough on its face, but when the majority of the menu is now birthday cake, one ought to be even more suspicious. No one in their right mind expects that the proles will suddenly set down their celebrojourno ass-sniffing periodicals in favor of Cahiers du Cinema or the Utne Reader.

But there's no balance, no real countervailing force to shitty, machine-made music promoted by manufactured personalities, or trite Hero's Journey narratives cobbled together one more blessed time, but with fresher graphics. Disposable pre-fab things that have already been manufactured before, and better. I honestly believe we are approaching a point where entire movies can and will be made without seeing a live human on the screen, they'll just create a generic, agreeable persona and hire some random ape to mo-cap the action and dub the dialogue.

There should be more salient criteria to getting a movie made than "shiny thing go boom" or "fat guy married to Salma Hayek." In a larger sense, it is an accurate reflection of a society that has given up, and is content with its CGI gruel. If the only goal of experiencing any new music or movie or teevee show is to kill an afternoon or evening, to just mark time and run down life's clock one by one until the eventual end, then what is the point?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Anger Management

Vigilante doughboy George Zimmerman, who once shot a kid in Florida just to watch him die, is having trouble controlling his temper yet again.

If Zimmerman were black -- or a little girl with a cell phone -- he'd already have been beat down or shot by the cops, on video, with random idiots rushing to copsplain that the video doesn't tell the whole story.

#copsplain

Wife of the Party

The Palins plan their dine-and-dash from The Golden Snoot.
The Wasilla Hillbillies just cain't help theirselfs, kin they? Showing up at someone else's birthday shindig in a stretch Hummer limo (because a dented Airstream would have been just too fucking spot-on), the ClampettsPalins promptly set about making it all about them, as usual:

....multiple accounts say that it started when Track confronted Willow’s former boyfriend, Conner Cleary, who was there with his father Steve and his mother Melissa. Thompson didn’t see this part, but other witnesses, who didn’t want to be named, say that Conner and Track fought on the front yard. Steve tried to break it up. Todd jumped into the mix and began to choke Steve. 
After that ended, Conner, Steve, and Melissa Cleary huddled together close to Thompson, who spotted Bristol and Willow from a distance, walking straight towards them with purpose.

“They were on a b-line, coming straight at Melissa,” Thompson said.

The owner of the house, Klingenmeyer, was trying to head them off at the pass. He approached them and told them to leave. Bristol, according to Thompson and other witnesses, planted her feet, “stood straight up, brought her arm back and cold-cocked him right in the face,” Thompson said.

And then she did it again, about six more times, before he pushed her away, and she fell, and Todd appeared.

....

Another melee. This time Sarah got involved and began to scream profanities at everyone. One source, who didn’t want to be named, said that she was “nearly crawling on top of people,” trying to get into the scrum.

As these things go, that also broke up, and the Palins were asked again to leave. They piled into the Hummer, but not until Track stood out in front of the house, inexplicably with his shirt off, his middle finger raised at those who were also leaving.
On the one hand, it's so cool that the most important woman in the universe has time to crash other people's parties and siphon cash from rube subscribers; on the other, her slugging percentage with successful parenting is sad enough that a normal person with that, um, track record would shy away from offering family and parenting advice.

A few more "doncha know who I am?" tirades from Miss Thang and her insufferably over-entitled drunken brood, and they may find themselves sent out on an ice floe by fed-up Alaskans. As always, one can hope.

Oh and, uh, fuck you, John McCain. This is all your fault.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

ISIS Crisis

On the 13th Anniversary of Never Forget Day, we find ourselves ready to head back into Iraq, on a seemingly more justifiable mission than last time, but still a fool's errand with no happy ending. It's not that you can't make a respectable case for military and humanitarian intervention in the region. And if it's remotely true that the group has considerable assets and volunteers from a variety of countries, it is entirely conceivable that a non-Arab cell could sneak, say, a nuclear suitcase into Miami or Baltimore.

What should give pause is what is seemingly not being said, at least as far as I've seen or heard. The fact of the matter is, as Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya and Syria and any number of countries in the region demonstrate, we don't know what we're doing there. We don't know anything about these people, we don't understand why they hate us, we can't figure out the difference between the various groups. We don't know the cultures, the languages, we can't find them on a map.

When you don't know jack shit about a country and people you want to bomb or otherwise commit violence upon, isn't it time you checked your basic premises? Does there have to be a larger casus belli than "I think these guys might be assholes, if these are the guys I'm thinking of."? Weren't some of these ISIS cells rebelling against Bashar al-Assad just a year ago, and weren't we ready to arm them in their fight?

Nowhere in this "spreadin' freedom" effort of the last decade or so, nowhere in the premature triumphalism of the Arab Spring, was the possibility noted that, just because the citizens of these countries had chosen to free themselves from the torturous yokes of (sometimes American-supported) despots and dictators, that they automatically wanted what we had to offer -- an emotionally-retarded culture buttressed by an economy mostly based on rackets and pilferage. Shit, they already have those things.

Look, even if these ISIS assholes aren't a direct threat to American geopolitical interests -- and they almost certainly are, if not a direct threat to the US mainland itself -- it is also difficult to simply stand by while they decapitate foolhardy journalists out in their desert moonscape, while they seize dams and terrorize cities and civilians, while they attempt to exterminate minority religions in the area. But it must also be taken into account that our track record has been one of going in and leaving a bigger mess than when we got there.

Wars and insurgencies, whether they are wrought by religious terrorists or secular governments, are fought for one reason and one reason only -- to establish and legitimize power. Clausewitz's saying about war being politics by other means is as true as ever. It might be helpful if for once, we knew what we were getting into before getting into it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Instant Replay

Now that the elevator video of Ray Rice cold-cocking his now-wife has finally come out, the real question can be asked:  What did Roger Goodell know, and when did he know it?

More likely is that, given how quickly Rice's case was adjudicated back in May, the league really didn't see the video, because its main goal was to see the whole thing get swept under the rug before the start of preseason. It might have actually worked, except that this is America, and cameras are fucking everywhere, especially in the elevator cars of casinos and hotels. So a video was known to exist by definition, it was simply a matter of time before the world saw it.

So the upshot is that the league wasn't interested in seeing it, because that would have tweaked the official narrative of a good kid who had a bad night, and had never done anything like this before, and would never do it again, so let's let him off easy, and pretend this never happened.

If I were a betting man -- and when it comes to football, I am -- I would bet that Goodell is out of a job by the end of the regular season, probably announcing his resignation before Thanksgiving. A more fitting and contrite response might be to simply exchange the increasingly tedious October pinkwashing campaign for a genuine domestic violence awareness campaign. It's probably about as likely as Ray Rice ever playing in the NFL again, but it would be a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Postmortal

*Post title a nod to Drew Magary's enjoyable-if-flawed post-apocalyptic novel. Magary is one of the all-around funniest writers on these entire internets, and I will throw down with anyone who claims otherwise.

So this happened a few days ago -- Esquire magazine takes a break from telling you why you're a soul-raping cultural barnacle for enjoying illicit nekkid fotoz of hot babes, juxtaposed with monkey-spanking American Apparel ads and barely-clothed fotoz of the very same babes, to give us these nuggets of wisdom from schlock 'n' roll grandpa Gene Simmons, as dutifully transcribed by Simmons' son Nick. Apparently Larry King's questions are just too incisive and probing.

NICK SIMMONS: You once said the music business isn't dying — it's dead. What would you say to young musicians and songwriters today trying to navigate this new terrain?
GENE SIMMONS: Don't quit your day job is a good piece of advice. When I was coming up, it was not an insurmountable mountain. Once you had a record company on your side, they would fund you, and that also meant when you toured they would give you tour support. There was an entire industry to help the next Beatles, Stones, Prince, Hendrix, to prop them up and support them every step of the way. There are still record companies, and it does apply to pop, rap, and country to an extent. But for performers who are also songwriters — the creators — for rock music, for soul, for the blues — it's finally dead.

Rock is finally dead.

I am so sad that the next 15-year-old kid in a garage someplace in Saint Paul, that plugs into his Marshall and wants to turn it up to ten, will not have anywhere near the same opportunity that I did. He will most likely, no matter what he does, fail miserably. There is no industry for that anymore. And who is the culprit? There's always the changing tide of interests — music taste changes with each generation. To blame that is silly. That was always the exciting part, after all: "What's next?" But there's something else. The death of rock was not a natural death. Rock did not die of old age. It was murdered. And the real culprit is that kid's 15-year-old next-door neighbor, probably a friend of his. Maybe even one of the bandmates he's jamming with. The tragedy is that they seem to have no idea that they just killed their own opportunity — they killed the artists they would have loved. Some brilliance, somewhere, was going to be expressed, and now it won't, because it's that much harder to earn a living playing and writing songs. No one will pay you to do it.

The masses do not recognize file-sharing and downloading as stealing because there's a copy left behind for you — it's not that copy that's the problem, it's the other one that someone received but didn't pay for. The problem is that nobody will pay you for the 10,000 hours you put in to create what you created. I can only imagine the frustration of all that work, and having no one value it enough to pay you for it.
This is such a conflation of "somewhat right" and "mostly wrong" that it needs to be disentangled a bit. Let's start with his point about record companies and the music industry in general, that there's this beneficent, moneyed, monolithic industry just waiting to help the next great artiste be all they can be, and so much more.

There was indeed a time when record companies were run by rich men who truly enjoyed the bands that were on their labels. But the Ahmet Erteguns of the world no longer run record companies, unfortunately, and in fact, mostly never did. You know what ruined rock music and record companies in general? Thriller. Yep, I said it. Fucking Michael Jackson.

It wasn't Jacko's fault, not directly. But all the noble muzak industry learned from dumping millions of dollars into ramming every bit of that thing up the world's collective ass was that promotion works, and that there's no such thing as over-promotion. But it takes a lot of promotion to create a monster, and only so much money overall available to tap. Since Jackson was on Columbia, which never exactly had a huge stable of actual rock acts in the first place, there probably weren't many rock bands that got short shrift. But you can bet that that wasn't the case at, say, Atlantic or Warner Bros. All they saw was that over-produced dance music was easy to manufacture and dump into the hype machine.

(It should be duly noted that Simmons' band saw their glory days as the only rock band on a disco label. Hmmm. I wonder if Neil Bogart had any vested interest in making sure that Kiss became successful?)

Simmons is correct that many kids now might just look at the prospect of dedicating thousands of hours to learn to actually play an instrument, and regard it as wasted time. I would suggest in response that whatever one's age, if you are looking at a career in the music bidness as a way to get yourself infinite amounts of fame, money, and pussy, you are wasting your time. You literally would be better off getting a law degree, or going to a vocational school and becoming a really good plumber or swimming pool contractor.

Anyone who says that gaining fame and fortune as a musician hasn't always been a serious crapshoot, literally on a par with buying a lottery ticket, doesn't know what the fuck they're talking about. You will definitely meet women playing in a rock band, unless you're a troll and have zero game. But you will meet more and better women driving to the club in the Beemer your partnership at Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe got you, than in the beat-up Chevy Express van your indie-pop band flogs from one gig to the next on a shoestring and a prayer. And if you're a noob starting up a band to make a living, I have just one word for you:  Don't.

If rock is dead, it is due more to people's tastes changing than to file-sharing (let's call it what it is -- stealing). The time and effort it takes to really learn and master a musical instrument may simply not be "worth it" to a demographic used to getting things quickly and easily. It was easy for me to put dozens of hours a week into learning guitar back in the '80s, because I had a black-and-white TV that got three channels, and no computer and no internets. There was nothing else to do, I'm an insomniac by nature, and slowly became gratified that my incessant jamming along with Rush and Deep Purple records started sounding more and more like actual music. Life is a series of distractions now, and creating decent music takes time and effort somewhere along the line.

There was a time when you could justifiably say that Gene Simmons and Kiss were very important to the development of rock music. They were probably as big in the mid-'70s as The Beatles had been ten years earlier. More importantly, they helped break a lot of hard rock bands that are still around today. They took Rush out of the Great Lakes region for the first time, they took Def Leppard and Iron Maiden out of England for the first time. The first Van Halen album would not have been made at that time without Gene Simmons' direct involvement. Credit where credit is due and all.

But the fact is, the next Eddie wailing away out there no longer needs a Gene to produce a demo and schlep it around for him. Production, promotion, and distribution  -- much like the product itself -- are all now virtually free, in that they require minimal sunk cost invested, just sweat equity, persistence, and an ability to network. Which are pretty much the requirements of being in a rock band in the first place.

Creative people don't need to be told that they need higher motivations than money to do what they do. I'm not talking any highfalutin nonsense about the nobility of the calling or whatever. It's just the cold hard fact that if you try to factor in all that sweat equity of learning and refining your craft, whether it's music or writing or whatever, and figure it as a career or by an hourly wage, you'd give up immediately. And it was even worse when you could go into hock just getting your music recorded, much less promoted.

And Chris Holmes wasn't bullshitting -- touring will take years off your life. Alcohol, drugs, women, fast food, stress, and boredom all combine in a toxic brew that, over extended periods of time, will fuck with your mind and body like nothing else. Getting on stage in front of a great crowd is the closest thing to sex you can have with your clothes on. But that's a few hours a night, in a strange town with nothing else to do the rest of the day, for weeks or months on end.

Anyway, by the time you calculate your practice time as an individual musician, your rehearsal time as a band, splitting the paycheck between the band and manager, gas for the vehicle(s), food, etc., you're probably not making even minimum wage, not until you start playing some real money gigs or selling some songs.

Same with writing -- while a more solitary pursuit and fewer mouths to feed and bad habits from traveling, the time it takes to go through multiple cycles of draft-edit-refine until you have a decent finished product doesn't get recouped for a good long time. The e-book craze has spawned a raft of folks who promise to show you how you can crank out an Amazon bestseller in a couple of hours. And if you're okay with churning out compilations of hastily edited PLR jabber with a GIMP-ed cover from Fiverr, you can. Hell, you can probably sucker a few people into buying it.

But to turn out something of real quality, regardless of genre, it takes time, patience, commitment. There's nothing at all wrong with wanting to make a buck doing what you love, you just have to really love it first, because the odds are against you making a career out of it. Even if you're really good.

The dynamic Gene Simmons laments, before he heads into a weird pseudo-patriotic fugue toward the end of the interview, is the same as it ever was, just a different set of middlemen this time. Last I checked, there is more good rock music out there than ever; it doesn't get on mainstream radio because mainstream radio is run by people who hate music and their listeners. Gene is just pissed because he no longer understands how to turn a buck from it.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Shotgun Blues

White people will probably never get what black people have always understood -- if you're an old, angry, drunk white asshole you can rant in the street while brandishing a rifle and menacing police and passersby, but if you're black, you literally have to be aware that pulling your wallet or cell phone too quickly can get your ass shot dead in the street, like a mangy dog. No warning shot. No attempt to reason, or to find out that you're completely unarmed. Just boom, dead.

The question about Michael Brown, and John Crawford, and all the other unarmed black guys shot down for no goddamned reason other than their pigmentation made cops nervous and trigger-happy, is not whether or not they had done something to "provoke" or "warrant" their public execution, but whether such a thing could ever possibly happen to a white person.

And in a country where angry, fat, suburban white assholes are constantly agitating for their "right" to go strapped into a Chipotle or a Starbucks, not only do you have to acknowledge "hell no", but you know perfectly well that if and when minorities start organizing and demanding their 2nd Amendment rights as well, those same pudgy freedom fighters will change their tune with a quickness.

Fart for Fart's Sake

I realize that I am a philistine when it comes to art, because I foolishly believe that if literally anyone can do something, it's not really art. There should be at least some measure of skill or insight or composition, somewhere along the line. So yeah, a guy sitting at a piano and not playing it is not music, and an asshole mounting hacked celebrity photos on the wall of a "museum" has nothing artistic or even mildly imaginative about it.

Last weekend, repainted the interior of my house and re-hung some paintings and photos, am I a fucking artist with a grant now? If I take a camera with a long-range viewfinder and snap photos of my neighbors through their windows, and post them in a public place, am I making some sort of daring "commentary" on society, celebrity culture, and freedom of speech, or am I just a peeping-tom shithead trying to cadge a buck from suckers?

It is my sincere hope that someone hacks this prick's phone, gets his photos, and puts them up on a wall somewhere.